Review: Balm in Gilead

balm in gilead

Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson, edited by Timothy Larsen and Keith L. Johnson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A collection of presentations from the 2018 Wheaton Theology Conference, discussing the work, and particularly the fiction, of Marilynne Robinson with contributions from Robinson.

It is not unusual at an academic conference to discuss the work of a particular author. What is perhaps more remarkable is to discuss the work of a living author with the author present and contributing. The subtitle of this work calls this “a theological dialogue with Marilynne Robinson, and this is true in two senses. The various essays do engage the theology, particularly the Calvinism of Robinson’s work. But the conference also engaged Robinson, with a presentation by her (“The Protestant Conscience”) and a conversation between her and Rowan Williams, and an interview with Wheaton College President Philip Ryken.

Most of the essays focus on some aspect of the theology found in Robinson’s work. Timothy Larsen considers the main character of her fiction, Reverend John Ames, his heritage as the grandson of a staunch abolitionist in the mold of Wheaton’s Jonathan Blanchard, his reaction against that as a pacifist, and the mindset of the 1950’s Christian Century which he and fellow minister Boughton regularly discussed. Han-luen Kantzer Komline explores Ames “heart condition,” both physical and spiritual, and his struggle to forgive and extend grace to Jack Boughton, the wayward child of his friend. Timothy George explores the unusual, for an academic and a writer, embrace of Calvinism by Robinson, with its doctrine of predestination, emphasizing grace and undercutting human presumption. George notes the central focus of Robinson on Christ and so does Keith L. Johnson in a discussion of Robinson’s metaphysics. Here he teases out Robinson’s understanding of the significance of the cross as the demonstration of the love of God for us rather than on its sacrificial character, a focus Robinson engages and differs with.

Lauren Winner focuses on the preaching of John Ames–the 67,500 pages and 2,250 sermons in the course of his pastorate in Gilead and his conclusion that “they mattered or they didn’t and that’s the end of it.” One of the most intriguing essays for me was that of Patricia Andujo on the African American experience in Robinson’s works. She explores how these works reflect the attitudes of mainline white churches in the 1950’s, a kind of passivity in the face of racism, even while raising the uncomfortable issue of Jack Boughton’s inter-racial marriage, and the lack of response when the town’s black church burns down and the congregation leaves.

Tiffany Eberle Kriner’s essay on “Space/Time/Doctrine” raises the intriguing idea of the influence of Robinson’s understanding of predestination, and the shifts backwards and forwards in time in her novels. Joel Sheesley, a midwestern artist, focuses on the landscape of Robinson’s novels. In the penultimate essay Rowan Williams explores the theme of the grace that is beyond human goodness. He writes:

“Grace, not goodness, is the key to our healing. To say that is to say that we’re healed in relation not only to God but to one another. Without that dimension, we’re back with toxic goodness again, the goodness that forgets and excludes. Lila’s problem in the novel is that the instinctive warmth, the human friendliness, the humanly constructed fellowship that characterizes Gilead cannot allow itself to be wounded and broken open in such a way that the stranger is welcome, whether that stranger is the racial other, or simply the socially marginal and damaged person like Lila herself. But to be wounded in our goodness, to learn to have that dimension of our self-image and self-presentation cracked open, is the beginning of where grace can act in us” (pp. 163-164).

The final essay is Robinson’s on “The Protestant Conscience,” in which she defends not only the freedom of conscience of religious believers but argues that the Protestant idea of conscience defended the freedom of all rather than enforcing a Christian conscience upon all through means of the state. This presentation is followed by conversations with Rowan Williams, and an interview with Philip Ryken. In this collection, I found these diverting, but not nearly as substantive and satisfying as the various essays. Perhaps a highlight was the difference between Robinson and Williams on the literary merits of Flannery O’Connor, of whom Robinson is no fan.

This is a great volume for any who, like me, love the work of Marilynne Robinson. It helped make greater sense of some of the themes I’ve seen in her work, particularly her Calvinism. It served to invite me to a re-reading of her work in its exploration of themes of place, race, and grace. Robinson’s presence by no means muted the critique of her work, and yet I saw no defensiveness in her comments, which bespeaks the evidence of grace in her life. All in all, this is well worth acquiring if you have followed Robinson’s work. For those who have not, read the novels first, and then you will appreciate this volume!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Guest Review: Enriching our Vision of Reality

Enriching Our Vision

Enriching our Vision of RealityAlister McGrath. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2017

Summary: The natural sciences and Christian theology can enrich each other’s understanding of reality and help us better understand this strange world in which we find ourselves.

The fundamental theme of Alister McGrath’s book is that “the natural sciences and Christian theology can enrich each other’s understanding of reality and help us better understand this strange world in which we find ourselves.” (p. 77)

His intended audience is “scientists with an interest in theology and theologians aware of the importance of the natural sciences” (p. viii), of which I happen to be neither.

McGrath suggests that “insisting that we use only scientific methods, forms and categories confines us to a narrow world that excludes meaning and value, not because these are absent but because this research method prevents them being seen.” (p. 16)

McGrath discusses the shortcomings of Ian Barbour’s four general approaches (conflict, independence, dialogue and integration) to the relation of science and religion, then goes on to favorably describe John Polkinghorne’s four approaches (deistic, theistic, revisionary, and developmental). The developmental approach is described as a continuously unfolding exploration wherein Christian doctrine is revised in the light of new insights.

He points out the numerous ways in which scientific and theological thinking are similar, particularly regarding Darwin’s theory and Christian theology, in that “both scientific and religious theories find themselves confronted with mysteries, puzzles and anomalies that may give rise to intellectual or existential tensions but do not require their abandonment. . . . In each case, there is a common structure of an explanation with anomalies, which are not regarded as endangering the theory by its proponents but are seen as puzzles that will be resolved at a later stage.” (pp. 147-8)

And it wouldn’t be an Alister McGrath book without a discussion of natural theology, which he describes as “an attempt to demonstrate the existence or character of God by an appeal to the order or beauty of the natural world, without presupposing or relying on any religious assumptions or beliefs.” (p. 165) McGrath suggests that “Christianity offers a framework that makes sense of what is otherwise a happy cosmic coincidence.” (p. 11)

In summary, McGrath provides an exploration of the relation of the natural sciences and theology and how they can complement each other. Along the way, McGrath responds to the views of some of the New Atheists, particularly Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

The book includes a two-page “For Further Reading” but no Index. The only fault I can find with this book is that the publisher chose to go with end notes (28 pages of them) instead of footnotes, thus requiring constant page-flipping.

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This guest review was contributed by Paul Bruggink, a retired technical specialist whose review interest is in the area of science and faith.

 

Review: None Greater

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None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God, Matthew Barrett (Foreword by Fred Sanders). Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: Drawing on classical and reformed theology, discusses the perfections of God, that set God apart from all else.

It seems a common tendency in Christian preaching, and even in our informal conversations, to try to “bring God down to our level.”  Christian Smith, in a study of the religious beliefs of American teens, coined a term to describe the God of many: “moral therapeutic deism.” In this system, there is a belief in a God who made the world, who wants us to be nice and fair, the purpose of life being to feel happy and good about oneself, God only gets involved in our lives when we need God, and that good people will go to heaven when they die. Such a God is nice, domesticated, and mostly irrelevant to our lives. God is like us, only a bit better and maybe more powerful.

The classical theologians like Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, and those in the Reformed tradition of the author thought quite differently. For them, God, as Anselm put it, is “someone than whom none greater can be perceived,” hence the title of this work. While God may have certain communicable attributes like love, that are evident in part in human beings, God’s incommunicable attributes are utterly unlike any other creature and set God apart as incomparably greater than human beings.

It was this God that Matthew Barrett discovered in college when he read Calvin’s Institutes, and the other theologians mentioned above, opening his eyes to the glory and majesty of God. His hope in this book is that through a study of God’s attributes, particularly those dealing with the incommunicable perfections of God, to sow the same sense of wonder in his readers, inviting them to give up their domesticated versions of God for the incomparably greater undomesticated God of scripture.

The first three chapters of the book lay groundwork. First he explores the incomprehensibility of God, that we may speak of attributes, but none of us may see or know God in God’s very essence. It is not that God in unknowable, because God makes God’s self known through God’s works. He discusses how we may speak of God in analogical language as revealed by God to us, and sometimes in anthropomorphic language of hands, eyes, even wings, none of which are true of God’s essence. Most of all, we must recognize that God is infinite in God’s perfections, and without limits–a staggering realization for finite and imperfect creatures.

The remainder of the book discusses the perfections of God:

  • God’s aseity or self-existence independent of all of creation.
  • God’s simplicity, that even when we speak of various attributes, these are not “parts” of God but compose a seamless whole.
  • God’s immutability, that God does not change, grow, improve, or diminish, which is a tremendous comfort.
  • God’s impassibility, that God does not experience emotional changes, both settled in his promise-keeping love, and holy wrath toward evil.
  • God’s eternity, that he is timeless and not exists in the eternal present.
  • God is omnipresent: not bounded by a body, infinitely present.
  • God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnisapient: all-powerful, all knowing and all-wise.
  • God is both holy and loving: the high and lifted up God Isaiah sees, who cleanses his mouth and takes his guilt away and lovingly commissions him.
  • A God who is jealous for his own glory, inviting us into a similar jealousy for the glory and reputation of God above all in our world.

I found this discussion far from the “sterility” often found in such treatments of the attributes of God. Barrett helps us understand how each attributes both feeds our worship of God and is of great consolation to the believer. For example, the aseity of God means that the gospel depends on a God who does not depend on us. He deals with questions that may arise, such as how we can speak of simplicity and yet believe in a triune God. He differentiates an immutable God from one who is rigidly immobile. He deals with the classic conundrum of God creating a rock so big he cannot lift.

His discussion of impassibility is particularly intriguing in taking on Jurgen Moltmann’s “suffering God.” Yes Christ in his humanity suffers, but God does not suffer, God redeems. God is not like the family suffering over a family member trapped in a fire, but rather the fireman who has the capability and compassion to enter the burning building, enduring the flames and the smoke, to rescue the loved one. I’m not sure I buy this, and it seems these ideas are framed in either/or terms, not admitting the possibility of both/and, or the possibility of a quality of suffering in the God of eternal love who from eternity both purposed creation and the redemptive work of Christ.

This is a highly readable contemporary rendering of classical theology. It has become popular to bash classical statements of theology. Often, what is being bashed are caricatures. Here is the real stuff, articulated clearly and winsomely. I didn’t agree at every point, but found myself again and again marveling at the greatness of God and challenged to consider the ways I’m tempted to domesticate God. That, I think, is what makes for good theological reading and may be found here.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Crucifixion

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The CrucifixionFleming Rutledge. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017.

Summary: A study of the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus including the biblical motifs that have been used to express that meaning.

It is striking to consider how relatively few books in recent Christian publishing deeply explore the meaning of the death of Christ by crucifixion, particularly considering that the death and the resurrection are central to Christian proclamation. Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion goes a long way to remedying this deficit.

This is a large book, but I would encourage the prospective reader not to be daunted by the size. While rich in insight, it is also a model of clarity, among the very best theological books I have read, both worthy of the academy, and written for the people of God.

The book consists of two parts. The first considers the crucifixion, particularly the godless character of this brutal execution, and the critical importance of this horrible execution as primary to the Christian faith. Rutledge also deals in this part with the biblical understanding of justice as the setting right, or rectifying, of something that is radically wrong, and that this something is the radical power of Sin over humanity. She makes a case that Anselm’s version of “satisfaction” is actually closer to her idea of rectification than he is credited for.

The second part of the book (about 400 pages) explores eight biblical motifs of the crucifixion that, together, help us understand the meaning of the crucifixion and what God accomplished in Christ on the cross. Rutledge prefers the language of motif to the more common language of theory because she believes all of these work together, rather than at odds with each other, to convey the glorious significance of the work of Christ. The motifs are:

  • The Passover and the Exodus
  • The Blood Sacrifice
  • Ransom and Redemption
  • The Great Assize
  • The Apocalyptic War: Christus Victor
  • The Descent into Hell
  • The Substitution
  • Recapitulation

She would contend that these show two basic things that happen in the cross:

  1. God’s definitive action in making vicarious atonement for sin.
  2. God’s decisive victory over the alien Powers of Sin and Death.

There are several things about her treatment of these motifs that are quite wonderful. One is that she reintroduces into theological conversation terms we are often averse to speak of: blood, ransom, judgment, hell, and substitution among others. Two is that she helps us see through these terms both the gravity of the human condition and how Christ truly has paid what we could not and triumphed over sin and evil, breaking their power and hold on humanity. These terms tell us essentially that we are worse off than we thought, and that is good news because God has done what we could not. Finally, she retrieves the language of substitution from the disparagement that it has become popular to pile upon it, while acknowledging the problems in some formulations. She beautifully unites the idea of Christ’s substitutionary death for us and Christ’s victory of the power of Sin, Evil, and Death (she capitalizes these terms reflecting the idea of these as powers). Instead of opposing these two ideas, she sees substitution as the basis of the victory of Jesus. I also found her treatment of Christus Victor as far more compelling than Aulen, in her linkage of this idea with the apocalyptic war.

The conclusion of the work returns to the beginning and amplifies these themes with the motifs she has developed. She emphasizes again the uniqueness of Christianity as the account of the Son of God who not only dies to redeem, but does so facing utter contempt and horrible suffering. And she emphasizes that this work makes right what was wrong. What she does in this conclusion is draw out the implications of these ideas. All the distinctions humans make are muted in the face of this work. All of us are in the same predicament, and this work of Christ addresses the wrongs in all of us, banal or horrid, and sets things right. This is not “God loves you just as you are” as we blithely love to say. The gruesomeness of the death of Christ reflected the cost to God necessary to set things to rights in breaking sin’s curse and power, and the horror reflects the power of this act to address the condition of even those who have done the most horrid.

What she is saying is that it is all of grace, all of God. In summary, she writes:

“Forgiveness is not enough. Belief in redemption is not enough. Wishful thinking about the intrinsic goodness of every human being is not enough. Inclusion is not a sufficiently inclusive message, nor does it deliver real justice. There are some things–many things–that must be condemned and set right if we are to proclaim a God of both justice and mercy. Only a Power independent of this world order can overcome the grip of the Enemy of God’s purposes for his creation” (p. 610).

This is what the crucifixion accomplished. Not only are individuals justified (or rectified) through this work, but all the injustices of the world are atoned for, and the process of setting these right has begun. Both the preaching of justification by grace, and the preaching of the restoration of justice find their warrant in the cross and are not at odds.

Rutledge does not come out and say this, but an implication of her “inclusiveness” is the possibility of the ultimate “rectification” even of those who have resisted the proclamation of rectification, as in her treatment of the Jews in Romans 9-11. Elsewhere she speaks of the final annihilation of Satan and those given over to him, but here she speaks of Christ’s death as an outcast as redeeming even those on the outside. She admits (p. 459, note) to struggling with Matthew 25:46 and Jesus’s own statement about eternal punishment. Perhaps this restrains her, as it does me, from asserting a final universal “rectification” of all people, but she comes very close. What is clear is that, for her, this arises from her expansive understanding both of the utter helplessness of all of us to save ourselves, without distinction, and the utter greatness of God to save through the cross of Christ. Perhaps in the end, this is a call to humility, of leaving these matters in God’s hand, and never presuming upon but utterly trusting in the grace of this God.

Without question, this was perhaps the most profound theological work I’ve read in at least the last five years. It made me look again at the uniqueness of Christ and his work on the cross. It made me think deeply not only of why Jesus died, but why he did so in such a horrid way. It made me think, and question, the ways I’ve formulated my understanding of the work of the cross and particularly challenged me to think more about the victory of Christ on the cross over the power of Sin, as well as his atonement for the guilt of sin. This was a marvelous work to read in this season of Lent.

In addition to this review, I’ve written three reflections on portions of this work that may be accessed at:

https://bobonbooks.com/2019/03/22/reading-reflections-the-crucifixion-part-one/

https://bobonbooks.com/2019/03/27/reading-reflections-the-crucifixion-part-two-a/

https://bobonbooks.com/2019/04/04/reading-reflections-the-crucifixion-part-two-b/

 

Reading Reflections: The Crucifixion: Part Two-B

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWell, I’ve finished The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge. I will be doing a full review of the book tomorrow, but for today, want to capture and share some of my reflections on the last third of the book, leaving discussion of the Conclusion to my review tomorrow.

The last third of the book is a continuation of Rutledge’s discussion of motifs of the crucifixion and focuses on just three of these: the descent into hell, substitution, and recapitulation, with discussions of the first two lengthy enough that she provided an outline at the beginning of each chapter. I will share a few reflections from each.

The descent into hell. It was fascinating that she would embark on such a lengthy discussion of a motif found in but a handful of verses. For Rutledge this serves as the pretext to explore not only the idea of “hell” in scripture and the development of the doctrine throughout church history. Her aim is to take a hard look at the reality of and problem of evil, and how Christ’s death and resurrection have cosmic implications that prefigure the final destruction of the power of Sin, Evil, Death, and Satan and his domain, where the nothingness of these will finally be confirmed in their utter annihilation. Perhaps most striking for me is her assertion that we cannot speak of meaning when it comes to evil, that it is the negation of meaning. Her discussion of the radical nature of evil, that runs through every life sets up her discussion of what she might call Christ’s substitutionary victory (she so closely links these). It gives the lie to any human distinctions of righteous and wicked, and the folly of human pretensions to innocence. She writes: “The unalloyed proclamation of Scripture is that the death and resurrection of Christ is the hinge of history. It is the unique old-world-overturning and new-world-constituting event that calls every human project into question–including especially our religious projects” (p. 461).

The Substitution. This is a marvelous chapter that everyone who derides the idea of substitution should read. Rutledge traces this history of the motif, not going to classic proof texts like 2 Corinthians 5:19-21 but to Romans, to Galatians 3:10-14, and Isaiah 53 and its use in the New Testament. She explores how Christ’s death is both for us and in our place. She surveys the development of the motif in history and the objections that are raised, which often reflect formulations that are problematic, but are not ultimately the underlying reason for rejection of substitution, which she argues reflects our aversion to substitution’s “recognition of the rule of Sin and God’s judgement on it” (p. 506). She turns to Barth and the idea of “The Judge Judged in Our Place” and the idea that the Godhead is the acting subject of substitution, the agent accomplishing this in God’s self to undo the curse of Sin. What is striking in Rutledge is how she develops in all of this an understanding of substitution, not in opposition to the idea of Christus Victor, but as the means of the victory of Jesus, uniting these two motifs in a splendid display of the glory of God.

Recapitulation. This follows from substitution, in tracing the idea that Christ is the second Adam; that his incarnation, baptism, obedience of faith in the power of the Spirit, death, and victory over death recapitulate in a transformative way, the life of Adam, as Christ represents all of humanity as Adam did, but for our redemption. I love her conclusion here:

“This is what Jesus did. He rewrote the book of love. We are the ‘ugly people’ who put Jesus on the cross, but he is going to give us all his riches nevertheless….Because he has rewritten the story, we are no longer prisoners of our worst selves, nor of the evil powers that would destroy us. At any moment of our lives, God may break through with yet another miracle of rewriting. And laughter will resound from the farthest reaches of the created universe: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice’ (Phil. 4:4)” (p. 570).

What all three of these chapters underscore is that, as G. K. Chesterton has put it, we are what is wrong with the world, and utterly incapable of ourselves in setting things to rights, and that God, in Christ rectifies, or sets to right by sheer grace what we could never deserve or accomplish.

Reading Reflections: The Crucifixion: Part One

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I’ve taken a break from reviewing new books I’ve received from publishers for a short while to immerse myself in what may be the most significant theological book published in the last ten years. It was Christianity Today’s Book of the Year in 2017. I thought it appropriate in this season of Lent to finally dig into Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion“Dig in” is not inappropriate for this 612 page (plus bibliography and indices) study on the central event of Christianity. The work is made lighter by Rutledge’s elegant and accessible prose–this is a work of meaty theology meant for those in the pew and not merely the academy. It is such a rich book that I thought I would write several reflections in addition to my usual review to capture, at least for myself, something of the richness of this work. This is on the first two hundred pages, most of Part One of the book.

Right at the start, Rutledge contends for the primacy of the cross, and the challenge Christianity has always faced from various forms of gnosticism, and its devaluation of material life, including the very physical act of a crucifixion in history. In place of an action of the Triune God entering human history to make things right by a gory death, human beings prefer systems of attaining to hidden spiritual knowledge through human achievements, and the devaluation of the body. She notes that Christians have even drawn back, sometimes accepting narratives of the cross as divine child abuse, which she will contend reflects neither the shared will and agreement of the Trinity in the act of the cross, nor the object of the cross, making things right for those under the power of Sin.

She made a statement stunning in its clarity in her chapter on “The Godlessness of the Cross.” She writes in response to those who would ban the cross as a religious object that “[t]he cross is by a very long way the most irreligious object to find its way into the heart of faith.” She then explores at length the horror of the cross as an instrument of torture, degradation, and execution for the dregs of criminal society. the significance of the idea of those who die on a cross being under the curse, and explores the question of why God would choose such a horrific form of death to accomplish God’s redemptive purposes in the world. I’ve often asked the question “why did Jesus die?” What this book is challenging me with is the question of why did Jesus die in this particularly gruesome and horrific fashion?

She begins to explore a response to this in discussing the idea of justice. She notes that “[g]ross injustice demonstrates a basic premise: in our world, something is terribly wrong and cries out to be put right.” She uses the example of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to show that “putting things right” involves something far different from the “forgive and forget” idea we sometimes think of in God’s work through Christ. It involves accountable truthfulness about atrocities, both confessing wrongs and hearing from one’s victims. Yet the object isn’t punishment, which can never be proportional to the offenses, but a new creation. She goes on to explore the biblical word group connected to dikaiosyne, variously translated as “justice,” “righteous,” “righteousness,” and “justification.” She contends that the underlying idea is one of God making things right and suggests that “rectify” in its various forms may be a better English word and uses this in the remainder of the book. She argues that the cross is an apocalyptic event–a divine intervention that makes right what could not be made right by human law-keeping.

One of the striking emphases here that I sense will run through the work is the gracious initiative of God. Later, in a chapter on “The Gravity of Sin” (a topic she admits we have a hard time talking about) she contends “[t]here is no way to help people to the knowledge of sin except to offer the news of God’s ‘prevenient’ purpose in overcoming sin through the cross.” Countering our tendency  to put repentance first, she argues for an order of “grace-sin-deliverance-repentance-grace.” It is in grasping the grace of God revealed in the cross that we understand the enormity of our sin. It is understanding the mighty work of the cross in delivering us from the power of sin that we are moved to repentance and realize the sheer pardon into new life we enjoy by grace.

This chapter also develops an idea she has hinted at, of capital S Sin. We often think of particular acts. She develops the idea of Sin as a Power, a principle of rebellion that holds people captive, that there is a power of darkness over the human heart in all of us that helps explain the horrors of what humans do to each other. And it begins to explain why the Triune God chose the instrumentality of the cross to deliver us from this horrid power. This is hard stuff. It strikes me that this helps explain our obsession with explaining why people commit mass shootings and other atrocities. We look for some “reason,” perhaps because we do not want to face the reality of the reason-defying logic of human evil, and the scary possibility that it is not so far from any of us. Yet there is also the wonder that in the Cross, God, in the innocent Son, becomes the object of human evil to set to rights what was terribly wrong in us that we could not self-rectify.

One other aspect of this work, in a “bridge” chapter on Anselm, is that she argues that Anselm has been misunderstood as a proponent of penal suffering. She argues that his idea of “satisfaction” is much closer to what she is proposing as “rectification.” It makes me want to go back and read Cur Deus Homo to see if her reading of Anselm can be supported. In the second part of the book she will go on to discuss eight “motifs” for understanding the crucifixion, including substitution. Given her comments on Anselm, and her sensitivities to the accusations against penal substitution, as well as her defense of the death of Christ as a work of love in which the Triune God acted as one, I am curious how she will weight these different “motifs” (she disdains the terminology of “theories of the atonement”) and what she will conclude. Already, it is clear that for her, this will all point to the idea of rectification, of God putting right what was wrong through Christ.

I don’t know whether I will agree with all that Rutledge writes, but this work forces me to look with fresh eyes at what easily becomes too familiar. She helps us to face the skandalon of the cross lost in our back-lit crosses and eye-catching PowerPoints. She confronts us both with things about human nature that are uncomfortable, and the relentless determination of God to address what is terribly wrong with the world and put it right, which is quite wonderful.

Review: For the Life of the World

for the life of the world

For the Life of the WorldMiroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019.

Summary: Contends that for theology to make a difference it must address what it means for human beings to flourish in the world “in light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.”

Miroslav Volf grew up in Tito’s Yugoslavia. Matthew Croasmun cut his teeth in ministry in planting a church. For both, a lived theology was vital, and remains so in their current work with the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Their contention in this book is that “the purpose of theology is to discern, articulate, and commend visions of flourishing life in light of God’s self revelation in Jesus Christ” (p. 11). They argue for an emphasis of the flourishing life as a fundamental human quest. In so doing they propose a tri-partite definition of the flourishing life: life led well (agential), life going well (circumstantial), and life feeling as it should (affective). Furthermore, they argue that this is a quest that has been neglected in the universities, in the church, and in the theological world.

Addressing this last, they make the case that theology, at least as it is done in the West, is in a state of crisis. It is facing a shrinking job market and a shrinking audience. Most theological books mainly are read by other theologians, and purchased by seminary libraries. It is also in crisis because of how it has conceived of itself, either as a “science” engaged in description (e.g.. religious studies) or as advocacy (either for historic orthodoxy or progressive causes) rather than engaged in “descriptive work in service of a normative vision of human flourishing” (p. 56).

But why human flourishing? Isn’t theology about God, or about God’s redemptive work in Christ? The authors do not dismiss these ideas but show how a theology of human flourishing encompasses these concerns. Yes, theology is about a God who created a world as his home where his creatures flourish, and who is working to consummate that purpose even though the world has been marred by sin and oppression. Redemption is vital in this process not as an end, but rather because it crucially begins the process that leads to the consummation of that process of God restoring a world where humanity flourishes in God’s home.

One of the challenges that a theology for the life of the world faces is that of universality. It is a vision for not only individuals but for the world. The authors admit this and that such a vision will be contest by other visions. However, they argue the perspective inherent in the Christian vision allows for peaceful coexistence, collaboration, and learning from those who advocate other visions. Finally, they argue for room for a variety of particularities, for a kind of bounded improvisation within a normative vision.

Perhaps the richest part of this work was a chapter co-written with Justin Crisp on the life of the theologian, arguing for a fundamental alignment between thought and life. This means the life of a pilgrim marked by prolepsis, a striving toward a goal not yet fully realized in one’s life, and ecstasis in the sense that the life they lead is in and through another, Christ, rather than belonging to them. The example of Luther is commended in a life lived in the tension of a theology of glory and a theology of the cross. The chapter concludes in naming the intellectual dispositions of a theologian: a love of knowledge, God, and the world; a love for our interlocutors; courage; gratitude and humility; and firmness–with a soft touch.

The authors conclude with their own vision of a flourishing life–not a full-fledged theology–but the contours one might look for. They focus on Paul’s statement about the kingdom in Romans 14:17: For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (NRSV). Harking back to their tripartite definition of human flourishing, they propose that righteousness (or love) characterizes the life well led; peace characterizes the life going well; and joy characterizes the life feeling as it should. This is the content of the life lived in an already/not yet kingdom–a life that calls and allows for improvisation. It is a life that affirms the created goodness of our life in the flesh, even while we long for the consummation of the resurrection and the new creation.

The authors address a concern I’ve long had that theology is for the world, and not meant to be confined to seminaries. I review many theological books that I hope people outside the seminary world will read. I believe good theology books help God’s people flourish in his world, not because they contain a highfalutin version of “how to have your best life now” but because we desperately need to understand the story, the reality in which we live. Sadly, some, not all, of it is written primarily for other academics, even though the ideas are often important for the church and the world. I applaud the authors for naming this challenge and describing the attributes of those who pursue the noble work of doing theology “for the life of the world.”

One concern I have about this work is that it doesn’t address the vital need for a theology for the life of the world to be done by the theologians of the world. The discussion of the well-lived life is grounded in Western philosophy and has an individualistic feel even though the authors draw communal and societal implications. It would be intriguing to explore what Asian, African, Latino, and other theologians of color might contribute to an articulation of the contours of a theology of human flourishing.

The authors also talk about the tremendous cost of theological education in terms of graduate education and faculty salaries, wondering if it is worth it. The answer seems to be, “yes,” if done for the world. But I wonder if this is possible given the structural factors that isolate the seminary both from the church and the rest of the academic world. Volf and Croasmun’s work at Yale bridges a divide between seminary and academy. A growing movement advocating the importance of “pastor theologians” bridges the seminary-church divide. But how might the three come together to do what might be called “public theology” on the order of what figures like Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr engaged in during the 1950’s?

The vision of flourishing life in God’s home has the potential to take theology out of esoteric discussions to talk about ordinary life in the world–work, family, society, the physical environment and its care, concerns for justice, political life. It allows Christians to engage in public discussions about shared concerns for flourishing, and the distinctive contribution of that faith. Most of all, this work offers a searching challenge to all engaged in “academic theology” to consider toward what end they are working, and whether in the end their work addresses the fundamental human quest.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: New Creation

New Creation

New CreationRodney Clapp. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018.

Summary: An exploration of how the end of the Christian story, or eschatology, ought shape the life of the church in this time between the comings of Christ.

“We are storied creatures, and everything happens because we lean toward endings. These endings are the goals, the pursuits, the destinies, the termination points that mark and animate our lives. Without endings we could never begin anything. We would lack plots and our lives would be without purpose, devoid of meaning” (p. 1).

This statement from the Introduction captured my attention. I’ve long felt that the Christian faith is not merely beliefs to embrace, or precepts to practice, but a story in which we find ourselves. It has seemed to me that one of the great needs of the church, and individuals within her, to understand is the story within which we live. Often, I believe that we are living in other stories, perhaps familial, or cultural, rather than the story of the kingdom.

Rodney Clapp begins this work with a summary of our story of creation, fall, the mission of Israel, the coming of the kingdom in the person of Jesus, and the kingdom yet to come. He crucially observes that the idea of kingdom implies a politics for the church–not that we so much have a politics, but that we are a politics as the people of God.

Clapp then explores a number of topics in light of “the end of the story.” He begins with a discussion of heaven, and the Christian teaching of our ultimate destiny as resurrected people caring for the new creation with heaven as a way station. He discusses our identity as a royal priesthood, that are also the temple of the living God. Every other allegiance is secondary, and releases us to identify with the powerless, those on the margins. The day will come when the lion will lay down with the lamb when the rule of the Prince of Peace is established. For now we follow Jesus by turning from violence to bear the cross of peace, even while we engage in warfare, not with people, but with the Principalities and Powers, the structures of life that oppress. We name them and refuse them our allegiance.

He moves on to prayer, reflecting on the Lord’s prayer, how prayer is the watchful waiting of the pilgrim, and how the lament and theodicies of scripture give us language to face the disjunct between our broken world and the new creation we await. He considers what our hope for the new creation means for our care for the present creation, one whose creatures God knows and provides for. He even includes a poem on “Lessons in Prayer, from a Dog,” inspired by his own dog, Merle. For many, the most interesting will be his discussion of sex in the eschaton. He proposes, in the language of the Song of Solomon, that love is indeed stronger than death, and that although the scriptures are not definitive on this, there is reason to hope for sex in the new creation, even if there is no marriage or giving in marriage. If we are resurrected bodies, he proposes that our genitalia will not be mere ornamentation!

Finally, Clapp explores the question of the last judgment, offering an interesting discussion in which he argues against eternal conscious torment as inconsistent with God’s reconciling work through the cross of Christ. He explores both the idea of conditional mortality, that the unrepentant simply cease to exist, fading to “nothingness,” and hopeful universalism, in which, after suffering judgment that purifies and redeems, all will be saved. Clapp does not commit to either of these positions, which he shows have been embraced by various parts of the church, and argues that ours is not to judge but to proclaim the good news of the kingdom. He concludes that our view of eschatology enables us to deal with the tragedies and ironies of our current existence and to live with both calmness and joy in the present time.

The book includes appendices in reading the Bible for the first time, and also some suggestions for reading Karl Barth, whose influences are evident through the book. What is so good about this book is how it deals with the misapprehensions so many have about the last things. For many, a destiny of only being ethereal spirits strumming harps is far less attractive than embodied, and perhaps sexual, creatures working in the new creation. He speaks of an end of the story that answers to our deepest longings for peace and healing the rifts within humanity and the rest of creation. His account gives us hope to face the hardships of life, and a call to a higher allegiance that transcends all earthly political engagements. Twice during the book, he makes this assertion:

“If the Republicans are the last ones caring for the unborn, the Christian will be among them. If the Greens are the last fighting for a caring stewardship of creation, the Christian will be among them. If the Democratic Socialists are the last ones fighting for the poor and the working class, the Christian will be among them. If Black Lives Matter are the last ones believing that black lives do matter, the Christians will be among them. If the relief agencies are the last ones caring for refugees, the Christian will be among them. If the pacifist anarchists are the last ones standing for peaceable alternatives to war, the Christian will be among them” (pp 45, 113).

If nothing else, Clapp is an equal opportunity offender! Readers will doubtless find something to take issue with in this brief and forthright account. Some might disagree with Clapp’s take on the last judgement. But if he provokes us to think about what the end of our story is as the people of the kingdom, in all its glory, and challenges us to shape our lives, in these tumultuous times, by this story rather than other cultural stories, then this book will have accomplished its purpose.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Intersectional Theology

intersectional theology

Intersectional Theology: An Introductory GuideGrace Ji-Sun Kim and Susan M. Shaw. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2018.

Summary: An introduction to the application of intersectional analysis to theology, understanding how identities and social locations within systems of power might both challenge and shape our theological understanding and praxis.

I would like to begin by thanking one of the authors (Grace Ji-Sun Kim) for affording me the opportunity to review this book. Typically, white, cisgendered heterosexual males, who are aging boomers, who self-identify as evangelical tend not to embrace conversations about intersectionality. I appreciate the trust extended to be included in that conversation!

Actually, my self-description illustrates the basic idea of intersectionality. There are multiple axes that make up who I am–age, race, gender and sexual identity, physical abilities or disabilities, religious identifications, family background, marital status, education, income and social class. In my case, these axes have afforded “an invisible package of unearned assets” that some would call “privilege.” I’ve only ever been stopped by a police officer for violating speed laws, and invariably treated with courtesy. I’ve never had difficulty securing credit or a loan. I’ve never been mocked or excluded because of my sexual orientation or marital status. In one church, I had to accept a male co-teacher even though my first choice was a woman who was better qualified. I’ve worked in an organization whose funding model works best for white men, less so for women and persons of color. Especially so for those who may be women and persons of color. It has shaped how I read the Bible. For example, it has not been until relatively recently that I fully grasped that both the people of Israel and the early Christians were subject peoples to imperial powers for much of their history and that much of scripture is God’s word to enslaved or subject peoples, including prophecies against the unjust use of power by those who do not fear God.

Intersectionality as an idea arose out black feminism as black women understood that it was not enough to understand the differentials of power and the effects of oppression that came from being a black, or being a woman. These identities come together to shape people and institutions and the power relations between them. Also, as an analysis that arises on the receiving end of unjust uses of power, it is constantly connecting theory and praxis–reflection and action to pursue justice.

In this work, subtitled “An Introductory Guide,” the authors apply this approach to doing theology. They contend that much of the church’s theological scholarship has been done by white, male, Euro-Americans (people like me!) and reflects our social location. Furthermore, some of the theological work that has been done in resistance to this culturally dominant group, like liberation theology, or feminist theology, often is along a single axis of ethnicity, or gender, and is not cognizant of the multiple ways different aspects of identity are shaped by power relations.

The authors introduce us to this approach first by giving some of the history that I touched on above of the development of intersectional analysis. They then illustrate intersectionality as it relates to theological ideas with their own narratives. Grace Ji-Sun Kim describes her experiences as a Korean-American immigrant, a woman, heterosexual, being raised in both a Korean Presybterian context and American schools. Susan M. Shaw describes growing up in a Southern Baptist tradition, wanting to engage in ministry but being barred, first because she is a woman, and then even more, as she comes to terms with her lesbian orientation, leading her to become a member of the United Church of Christ.

The third chapter then describes what it means to do intersectional theology. One of the key proposals here is that intersectional theology is a “theology of indeterminacy” rather than one that articulates absolute truth claims. Practicing intersectional theology involves “bracketing” our own understanding to enter into the logic of others’ frameworks. It recognizes that theological work is done in a context and asks how our own interpretive community has influenced our interpretations. It forces one to examine whether one is using a single axis of one’s identity and muting others. Oriented toward justice, intersectional theology looks at how a theology either supports or challenges inequities.

Chapter four explores reading the Bible intersectionally, and this I found quite helpful. They use the example of the book of Ruth, looking at the different identities of Ruth, the widowed Moabite woman immigrant, Naomi, the bereft Jewish mother unable of her own to assert her inheritance rights with no male offspring, and Boaz, the male, Jewish landowner. They note for example, that we think of Galatians 3:28 as separate, rather than intersecting identities (e.g.. male, Gentile, and slave).

Chapter five turns to the practice of intersectionality, both in terms of the pursuit of justice, and fostering the intersectional church. They advocate for a church that is fully intersectional and inclusive along all the axes of identity discussed including age, race, sexual identity and orientation, economic status and more.

There is much here that I appreciate. First is the recognition that we do not do our theological work in a vacuum but that it may well reflect one’s various axes of identity. Listening to those who are reading scripture who are not white, not male, not Western has opened my eyes to things in the biblical text to which I’ve been oblivious because of my own social location. Recognizing the complexity of the intersections of race, gender, orientation, and other aspects of our identity and how the mix reflects our experience of power and how we hear scripture, challenges the assumptions I make and my awareness of who “we” are together as the global body of Christ. Learning to “bracket” and incarnationally enter into the lived experience and theological frameworks of others seems crucial to developing the capacity to move beyond our identities to reflect what it means truly to be the body of Christ. The questions for reflection at the end of each chapter are among the most probing and thought-provoking I’ve seen, going far beyond the obligatory “reflection questions” I find in many books.

At the same time, I do find myself with some questions as I consider this proposal. One has to do with the authors’ comments about Karl Barth (p. 14). They are critical of Barth’s focus on the Bible alone and de-valuing context and social location. Yet it seems that it is precisely Barth’s understanding of the Bible that enables him to forcefully challenge and resist the social location of the Third Reich and the Christian nationalism of the German church in the formulation of the Declaration of Barmen, even though this was the context and social location out of which he theologized. Do we not read, and keep reading the Bible, and do so with the whole church, so that the Word of God might challenge the idolatries and injustices in all our social locations and contexts, be they places of power, or places of the oppressed?

I also wrestle with the language of a “theology of indeterminacy” which sounds like another way of speaking of the “pervasive interpretive pluralism” that Christian Smith has observed in his critique of “biblicist” Protestant Christianity. At times, intersectionality seems to hold out hope for different communities recognizing more truly the manifold revelation of God in Christ, and reflecting that in the mosaic of identities reconciled in Christ. Yet, the question arises of what we do when we have opposing interpretations, even when interpreters from different communities have bracketed, carefully listened, and still at the end of the day differ. What if we have examined our context and social location and believe our interpretations are not simply a function of our interpretive community?  Still, it does seem that the sensitivity of intersectionality to justice means that it eschews moves that assimilate others into one’s own theological constructions or moving from the oppressed to the oppressor.

You can see from the length of this review that I found this a thought-provoking work. While I cannot embrace every conclusion or praxis advanced in this work, it does make me both more reflective about how my own context and various aspects of my identity shape how I read scripture and do theology. It made me want to listen more to voices outside my own social context. This is no small thing!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Review: Beauty, Order, and Mystery

Note: Perhaps I should prepare my readers for the reviews I will be posting today and tomorrow. The writers of the book I am reviewing today endorse what they would describe as the church’s historic consensus about human sexuality while attempting to deal thoughtfully and sensitively with contemporary issues in this contentious space. Tomorrow, I will be reviewing a book on intersectional theology, in which the co-authors support an “open and affirming” stance with regard to LGBTQ persons. I will understand if some of my readers decide to opt out of one or both, perhaps for good reasons because even summaries of the books and discussion of them may not feel “safe” given the reader’s personal experience. There is much I found in each book that I appreciated, and matters about which I had questions, or even disagreements. I suspect you will as well, and we may differ in our appreciations, questions, and disagreements. At least this blog won’t be one more “echo chamber.”

beauty, order, and mystery

Beauty, Order, and MysteryGerald Hiestand & Todd Wilson, editors. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: A collection of papers given at the 2016 Center for Pastor Theologians conference exploring various aspects and contemporary issues concerning human sexuality from the perspective of the church’s historic consensus.

The editors of this work begin by advancing the idea of “mere sexuality” which they hold to be the church’s historic consensus on the meaning and appropriate expression of human sexuality. They argue that this has been a time of sweeping change with the upholding of marriage equality and transgender rights, as well as the predominance of sexual intimacy outside of marriage, the ease of divorce, and the separation of sexual intimacy and procreation because of birth control. Some see this as sweeping away that consensus, others as evidence that there never really was one. The attempt of the contributors of this book is to articulate in fresh terms the church’s historic understanding of human sexuality, not only addressing contemporary questions but seeking to articulate a vision of the beauty of human sexuality, how a proper ordering of sexual love leads to human flourishing, and the meaning that underlies it for creatures made in the image of the triune God and the incarnate Son who calls the church his Bride.

There were several essays that I found especially helpful in articulating this vision. Beth Felker Jones writes about the goodness of embodied gender and sexuality, and challenges “cultural assumptions about femininity and masculinity [that] may interfere with Christian discipleship.” Wesley Hill, a celibate, gay, Anglican theologian, sensitively engages the work of Eugene Rogers and Robert Song, who both are “affirming” theologians. He carefully discusses Matthew 19:1-9 arguing that Jesus not only reaffirms the creation order of male and female marriage, but in his teaching about divorce, announces the redemption of this order. At the same time, he challenges readers to consider how LGBTQ persons may be gifts to the church rather than problems to be solved, people to be loved and wanted for who they are.

Joel Willitts offers what I found to be a courageous and vulnerable account of what it was like for him to struggle with a history of sexual abuse, pornography use, struggles with intimacy and the futility of the quick fixes often dispensed in the name of pastoral care. He shares, in an email with a woman struggling with porn, a woman abused from age 6 who became pregnant at age 12:

“…if you ever do come to the point that you can give up porn, it will not be because of contempt or fear or guilt or shame or self-discipline. If you ever give up porn it will be because you have come to know God’s kindness at the deepest level of your heart. Start being kind to yourself now because that is exactly how God will treat you through eternity. No sense waiting until then:)!”

Matthew Mason draws upon 1 Corinthians 15 and the work of Oliver O’Donovan to address the resurrection hope as it applies to those dealing with transgender identity and gender dysphoria. Amy Peeler explores the revelation of God’s glory in male and female worshiping and prophesying together as God intends in 1 Corinthians 11. Matthew Levering, a Catholic scholar, introduces us to Thomas Aquinas and the ordering of our sexuality that allows for human flourishing. Daniel J. Brendsel, drawing on the work of Charles Taylor, explores “selfie” culture and its implications for the culture’s understanding of sexuality. All these essays, I found quite helpful and reflected theological engagement and imagination.

The one essay I struggled most with was Denny Burk’s on “The Transgender Test.” After invoking “biblical inspiration and authority” I felt he, without exegesis or an engagement with what is known about gender dysphoria, equates “biological sex and gender identity.” My assumption is that he defines biological sex in terms of genitalia. He does not acknowledge the cases where this is ambiguous, and dismisses neurobiology and gender identity (what he calls “brain-sex theory”). While neural pathways are less visible than genitalia, they are no less biological. Instead, we are told that the Bible gives us all we need for life and godliness, that we need to accept that we were made male or female, and that is that. I thought this essay was not up to the level of the others, and question how helpful the “pastoral theology” found here will be to transgendered individuals.

On the other hand, I found Richard Mouw’s closing reflections on the conference filled with wise counsel for the church, from how he counselled a lesbian student as a seminary president, to our needs to think with the global church on these issues. This raises a criticism I would have of this collection of essays. As far as I can tell, these are all by white, North Americans (twelve men, one of who identifies as gay, and two women,). There are no voices of people of color, or theologians from outside North America. I hope that the Center for Pastor Theologians will heed Mouw in composing future conference speaker slates (an issue at many Christian conferences).

Nevertheless, I found much fresh and careful thinking in this work. Nowhere was this more typified that the closing essay on “What Makes Sex Beautiful?” Matt O’Reilly explores the beautiful bookends of the Bible in Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 21-22 and how both occur in a garden, have imagery of a temple where God dwells and involve a wedding. He writes:

“My argument is that sex derives its beauty from the marriage relationship, which is designed by God to uniquely embody and magnify his creative and redemptive love. When sex is celebrated in the context of that relationship and as its consummative act, it magnifies the beauty of the triune God.”

It seems to me that this touches on the heart of the discussion. All of our sexual ethics flow from the meaning of our sexuality, and here, as elsewhere, Christians cannot answer this apart from the loving triune God and the incarnate Christ, the Bridegroom who will come for his spotless bride.